Monthly Archives: April 2010

Grrrr!

Seriously.

I’m having computer problems at work.  Computer problems that neither my husband nor the go-to tech guy at school can solve (and problems which, if we bring the guy who installed our network in to come and look at, will cost the school money).  I’m the only one having the problem, it’s intermittent and unpredictable, and it frustrates the ever-loving shit out of me.

I’m hoping to have a new laptop by the end of the week.  If that doesn’t solve my problem, you might be able to hear me screaming from where you are….

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Doing My Own Homework

Yes, I’m one of THOSE teachers; I gave my students homework over the week-long April break.  My writing workshop kids are reading (and, Goddess willing, taking good notes on what they read so they can engage each other in a conversation about the book when we get back from vacation).  To my juniors and seniors, I have posted this assignment:

For homework over the break, please compose, using the notes you’ve done for homework over the past week, a critical essay in which you explore, in depth, one of the central themes of Dances with Wolves (if you choose to investigate a theme we didn’t touch on in the homework assignments, please feel free; you’re not limited to those few we discussed in class.  I plan on doing my paper about the theme of trust, which is one we didn’t journal about – and yes, I’m doing this assignment, too).

Please refer to the handout you received last Friday (Writing the Critical Essay) and the OWL site on critical essays for guidance about putting a paper of this genre together.  Your rhetorical purpose is to analyze – you’re looking carefully at a theme of the text and using that text to support the claim you make about it – so you’re going to need a strong, defensible thesis statement.  Nailing a thesis statement is going to make your writing much easier, so please do put some thought and effort into composing a claim that you can really dig into.  Remember that the entire work needs to be firmly grounded in the text, but assume your audience is familiar with the film; you needn’t waste a lot of paper explaining a scene.

I am going to STRONGLY recommend that you get together with a classmate to workshop your papers (you can even post them on the Ning and send a notice to everyone that it’s up).  Get someone else to read and respond to your work; you’ll find that your writing will be better for it.

Your paper should be no more than 5 pages and should follow the Writing Standards outlined on the Ning page (papers that fail to follow this standard will be returned as incomplete).

If you have any questions, problems, or concerns, or if you want to talk about your ideas (or get a refresher about a scene from the film) please either email me or leave a comment on this post.

Please remember that we’ll have a guest speaker on the Monday we return from vacation.  I expect you to be respectful, engaged, and participatory; please honor the time and effort this man is offering us by coming to our class.

Have a great week!

Here, then, is my essay.

The essential relationship in Dances with Wolves isn’t between Dunbar and the Sioux people; neither is it the relationship between Dunbar and Stands with a Fist, the woman who would eventually become his wife.  While those bonds are certainly important, both to the evolution of the narrative and to Dunbar’s growth as a person, the most significant relationship in the film is the one between Dunbar and Wind in His Hair.  It is through that deep and profound friendship, forged grudgingly between two strong-willed men for whom confrontation is a central part of who they are, that both men are able to see beyond their own prejudice and fear.  It can be argued that Dunbar isn’t the main character of the story at all; Wind in His Hair seems to be the person who undergoes the most significant change over the course of the film, and it is he who is most profoundly affected by the appearance of this white man into the Indian society.

In his first encounter with Dunbar, Wind in His Hair charges the white man yelling “I am Wind in His Hair! Do you see that I am not afraid of you?”  Both men are armed – Dunbar with his gun and Wind in His Hair with his spear – but neither man attacks the other, though the situation is highly charged.  Instead, they seem to be at an impasse; neither one is sure of the other – or of himself where the other is concerned.  That neither man either attacks or backs down during that first meeting lays a necessary foundation for their relationship; they recognize the warrior in one another and are able to relate, at first on a limited basis, as equals.  It is this foundation, based on trust and mutual admiration, that serves the men well as they begin to build a deep and abiding friendship.

Wind in His Hair approaches this first encounter having discussed the presence of the lone white soldier with the other men of his tribe; his attitude and behavior are tempered by the thinking of those other, deeply respected voices.  Wind in His Hair’s elders are thoughtful and curious; they see the strangeness of a white man alone on the prairie as a possible sign that this white man may be unlike the others they’d encountered, and they see that as reason to investigate the matter further.  Despite his stating that he wants to test the white man’s “medicine” with arrows, Wind in His Hair’s hand is stayed in that first encounter with Dunbar not only because he trusts the wisdom of his elders who told him that more must be known about this strange man before any action is taken, but also because he sees this man hold his ground in the face of the imposing figure that Wind in His Hair presents.  The Sioux warrior recognizes, in this other, a bit of himself.

Dunbar has no context for that first meeting beyond the fact that this is the third time these Indians have tried to steal his horse.  Everything he knows – or thinks he knows – about the native peoples of the frontier offers him no reason not to shoot this screeching Indian off his horse and be done with it.  Dunbar’s culture taught him that Indians are dirty, thieving, bloodthirsty savages.  Timmons echoes the popular sentiment when he tells Dunbar “you’d just as soon not see ‘em less’n the bastards are dead.  Nothing but thieves and beggars.”  It doesn’t seem a great leap to think that, given the Indians’ three attempts to acquire Cisco, Dunbar would think that the popular assessment of the native peoples is correct.  With Dunbar’s upbringing in white culture – and his recent experiences with these particular Indians – the audience is left to wonder exactly what keeps Dunbar from pulling the trigger.

That first and confrontational meeting with Wind in His Hair is the spark that Dunbar needs to do something.  To this point, he has been “waiting for something,” and he writes in his journal that it is now clear to him that he has “become a target, and a target makes a poor impression.”  He steels his resolve, outfits himself in his dress uniform, and proceeds to ride out and meet his Indian neighbors.  Of course, this does not go as he intended, and he finds himself walking into the village carrying a bleeding tribeswoman he encountered on his way.  It is Wind in His Hair who receives this woman, yelling and gesturing at Dunbar that he is not welcome in the village and ordering him to go away.  It is interesting to note in this scene that it is Dunbar’s horse, not Dunbar himself, who flinches at Wind in His Hair’s menacing gestures.  Even though he can’t understand Sioux, Dunbar clearly understands Wind in His Hair’s intent – it would be difficult not to, given the warrior’s fierce face and the club he’s carrying –  yet Dunbar makes and maintains eye contact with Wind in His Hair through the entire encounter.  This fact isn’t lost on Wind in His Hair who, after dragging the injured woman back to the gawking villagers, turns to stare back at Dunbar with what seems to be a mixture of confusion, admiration, and open disbelief.

Wind in His Hair’s chief, Ten Bears, sees something between the men in that scene in the village, and he sends Wind in His Hair with Kicking Bird, the village’s medicine man, as ambassadors to meet Dunbar at the fort.  Ten Bears’ intent here is twofold; he sees in Dunbar much of the same stuff he knows Wind in His Hair is made of – strength of character and bravery – and he wants for Wind in His Hair to recognize that in this strange “other” because that point of commonality may be helpful in establishing a rapport between the tribe and the soldier.  Ten Bears also needs Wind in His Hair’s cooperation in the chief’s plans for dealing with the soldier.  Wind in His Hair is clearly the alpha warrior in the village and, as such, his attitude toward the village’s new neighbor will have a great influence on how many of the other warriors behave toward him.  Ten Bears’ decision to send Wind in His Hair with Kicking Bird on that first formal diplomatic mission is both political and personal; Wind in His Hair is acting as an ambassador from his village, but he’s also opening himself up to the possibility of a relationship with this white man.  Ten Bears, as wise and observant as he is, just sees that possibility long before Wind in His Hair does.

For all of Wind in His Hair’s impatience and incredulity – he tells Kicking Bird that Dunbar’s “mind is gone” as Dunbar is on all fours imitating a buffalo during that first formal meeting – he is fascinated by this man who is so clearly different from himself but who bears, nevertheless, an energy and character that Wind in His Hair understands.  Dunbar recognizes that sympathy of spirit as well, saying that “the Fierce One, as I call him, seems a very tough fellow… from the little I know of him, he seems to be very honest and direct,” qualities that Dunbar clearly admires and which, judging from his behavior throughout the film, he himself exemplifies.

After the buffalo hunt, as Dunbar is becoming more and more integrated into the village culture, he and Wind in His Hair make a trade – Dunbar’s coat for Wind in His Hair’s breastplate.  While Wind in His Hair doesn’t see much in the exchange – for him, it was simply one ornament for another – Dunbar interprets the trade very differently.  He openly admires the breastplate – we’d seen him eye it earlier in the film – and the gift of such a fine thing impresses him.  Later, in the lodge, we see that Wind in His Hair has truly turned a corner in his relationship with Dunbar when he stands up for the white man when an Indian comes into the lodge wearing the hat that Dunbar had lost in the buffalo hunt.  Wind in His Hair argues that the hat belongs to the soldier and that, if the man wants to keep it, he needs to offer something in exchange.  This is done, Dunbar accepts the offering, and Wind in His Hair, who was once in favor of killing this white man, has instead become his advocate.  Dunbar writes in his journal at the end of that scene that “many times [he’d] felt alone, but [until he left the tribe to return to his fort after the hunt, he’d] never felt completely lonely.”  He recognizes here that he’s making genuine human connections in the tribe, and one of the most significant connections is the one with Wind in His Hair.

Perhaps the most important scene in understanding the distance that Wind in His Hair travels in becoming Dunbar’s friend is when Wind in His Hair is telling him about Stands with a Fist’s first husband.  This man, who died early in the film in a battle with a rival tribe, was important to Wind in His Hair.  “He was my best friend,” Wind in His Hair explains.  “He was a good man.  It has been hard for me to like you.  I’m not the thinker Kicking Bird is.  I always feel anger first.  There were no answer to my questions.  But now I think that he went away because you were coming.  That is how I see it.”  In telling the story, Wind in His Hair explains that Dunbar didn’t just come for Stands with a Fist; he was coming for Wind in His Hair, too.  We are led to understand that, despite his claims to the contrary, Wind in His Hair really is a thinker; his friendship with this strange white man has given him much to think about, and it is clear that he is pleased with the outcome.

Late in the film, when Dunbar announces to the council that he will be leaving the village because his staying represents too great a threat to the people, Wind in His Hair cannot stay in the lodge; he yells “No” over and over and leaves in a rage that he uses to cover his pain and fear.  We watch as Wind in His Hair struggles to find the courage to approach Dunbar’s lodge later in the scene; he wants desperately to talk to Dunbar, but can’t bring himself to do it.  His pain and frustration are plainly evident on his face, and we understand clearly that Wind in His Hair is anticipating a loss that will be difficult for him to reconcile.

The final scene of the film is an incredibly touching look into the depths of Wind in His Hair’s feeling for Dunbar and the relationship that they share.  High on the bluff, Wind in His Hair yells to Dunbar “Dances with Wolves!  I am Wind in His Hair!  Do you see that I am your friend?  Can you see that I will always be your friend?”  His voice breaks, and it is evident that he is crying.  With this parting, Wind in His Hair comes full circle; he heralded his first encounter with Dunbar by challenging him with, “Do you see that I am not afraid of you?” and solemnized his last meeting by asking “Do you see that I am your friend?”  The emotional distance that Wind in His Hair had to travel to come to that final scene was vast; he overcame fear and prejudice and was able to see himself in the face of another who he originally thought could not be more unlike himself.  He came to understand, in a profound and almost visceral way, that if one is willing to take the chance, one will likely find that there is no such thing as an “other.”

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Love Thursday

I love my professional life.  In it, I am surrounded by passionate, competent, and damned funny people who care as much about their work as I do mine.  While I could do more than a month of Love Thursdays dedicated to each of my coworkers in turn, I’m focusing today on my boss (who, for the purposes of anonymity, I call Carrie).

In short, she’s awesome.

Carrie is relatively new at her job as director of Charter High School, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her.  She’s totally on the ball (and when she’s not, she doesn’t show it), she’s genuine and approachable, and perhaps most importantly for me as a teacher, she’s entirely supportive of the work that I and my coworkers do.

We were talking the other day about the environment we’re working as a group to create, and she commented that a lot of what works well in that environment is the trust that we have in each other.  Part of her job as an administrator, she told me, is not only to be supportive of her faculty, but to stay out of our way and to let us do our jobs.  That she is a teacher herself helps a lot; she understands the work that goes into what we do and – and this part is crucial – she understands that when the students don’t succeed, it isn’t necessarily a failing on the part of the teacher.  As a matter of fact, she’s currently frustrated with her theatre class for not putting in the necessary effort, and she’s entertained my students on numerous occasions after I’ve kicked them out of my room for not bothering to do the work they needed to have done in order to understand what the hell we were talking about in class that day.

What I’m saying is, she gets it.  Given the horror stories I hear from my teacher friends about their nightmare, clueless, even vindictive administrators, I thank the Universe every workday that I landed under Carrie’s command.

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Quick Hit; Representing the Unspeakable

I’m spending the evening with Martin. I picked him up at home (he lives in my town) and drove him to Big City so we could watch Bloodlines, a documentary about how the relatives of survivors and relatives of perpetrators come to terms. Martin will speak after the film. I feel honored to be his friend.

I’ll write more when I get back to my computer; I’m composing this on my iPhone…

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A Perfect Storm

The Outreach Coordinator for the Holocaust education center (let’s call him Tom) came to CHS on Friday to present to the students a new lecture he’d composed on the antecedents and precursors of the Holocaust.

Tom came to deliver a lecture last term, too, and I’d been wanting to get him back ever since because I know the students were really sucked into the talk he gave last semester.  How do I know this?  Several of my kids have brought up things, in class conversations and during our out-of-class, lunchtime discussions, that Tom stressed in that first talk, so I know that he got to at least some of them.  Being that April is Genocide Awareness Month (and that my classes are working on Holocaust and genocide themes), I jumped at the opportunity to have Tom come back and work his magic again.

And, MAN!  That guy has some kind of magic.

First, let me tell you that this man is exceedingly good at what he does.  He’s engaging and energetic, and he manages to be self-effacing and humble while at the same time being incredibly knowledgeable and talented.  He has a gift for taking a very difficult subject and making it accessible to a wide range of people; he had 64 high school students and 8 teachers and administrators in their seats and completely tuned into what he was saying for almost two straight hours.  I admire his passion, and aspire to be as good in my own teaching practice as he is in his.

While I am literally always left in full-on brain-churn after one of Tom’s lectures, this one in particular got to me.  The topic is one that we deal with literally all the time as Holocaust educators; how can something like that happen? Students are always asking these sorts of questions because, like everyone else, it is inconceivable to them that a civilized culture full of educated people (kind of like the one we live in?) could possibly allow that kind of impossible inhumanity to take over almost entirely unchecked.

The underlying question in Tom’s lecture was this: What, in my own culture, faith, traditions, or family, creates an “other”?  What part do I play, either willingly or unconsciously, in the creation of an “other”?  He began the presentation with a talk about the fact that the Nazis didn’t invent anything.  Nothing they did was new or original; they were simply masters at tapping into the undercurrent of fear and prejudice that was already extant in German culture after World War I.  Beginning with the “Rhineland Bastards,” the children of German women and Black soldiers who served with the occupying French Army after the first World War, the German government played upon fears and hate, however subtle it may have been at the time, to arouse in the target Aryan community a feeling of solidarity against a dangerous and insidious “other.”  The presentation went on to describe the prejudice and exclusion (and eventually, sterilization and outright murder) of other “othered” groups; the handicapped, homosexuals, Sinti and Roma people and, of course, Jews.

The conversation that we had, both as a large group and in the short time we were able to meet as classes afterward, revolved around the question of how we approach those with whom we disagree – how do we engage the “other” Tom was talking about?  He was challenging us (as he always does) to consider our place in a community and to understand that our thoughts, words, and actions have an effect beyond ourselves.  It’s a powerful message, and one that deeply informs my own teaching practice.

One of the things I have to be exceedingly careful about in my classroom is that I not push my agenda; I freely admit that I’m a lefty humanist, but I’m make equally clear that I am not in this to encourage my kids to think like me.  What I’m far more concerned about is encouraging my kids to just think; I want them to look critically at the information they get, the assumptions they come into situations with, and the beliefs that inform their actions so they can know for sure (or, at least, as sure as a fallible human being can be) that they’re being genuine and authentic.  I don’t want them to swallow wholesale what I or anyone else hands them; I want them to be always questioning, always trying to project out through consequences – trying to see how far the ripples of their words or actions might go, and to what effect.

Before he left, Tom mentioned to the students that he considers me one of his teachers.  (This kind of floored me, to be honest, because my admiration of and respect for him and the work that he does didn’t allow room for me to consider that I had anything to offer him, but that’s a topic for another reflection.)  He asked the students if they’d noticed how I greet people, and then asked them if they understood what the implications of that greeting are.  He explained to the kids that part of being an active agent against the kind of thoughtless hate and prejudice that could potentially lead to genocide is the practice of approaching the other, whoever that other is, with an attitude of respect.  While I still struggle with that aspect of my belief system (what do I do when I approach someone who does not return my respect?  What about someone who so disrespects me or my kind that his only response is to destroy me?  How do I reconcile my intolerance for intolerance?), I am gratified to know that at least some of the ripples I send out in my day-to-day practice of life are good ones.  It matters to me that I be a part of a stop-gap against hate; I refuse to pay that kind of energy forward.

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Filed under admiration, analysis, colleagues, compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, Holocaust fellowship, I love my job, Mrs. Chili as Student, self-analysis, Teaching

Harkness Tables

I love my boss.

She is completely jazzed about the fact that I teach in a round-table format.  In fact, I sometimes look up to see her lurking outside my classroom door and listening in on what’s going on in our class conversations, and she mentioned yesterday that she wants to audit my senior level class next year.

I found out the other day that one of the ways in which my boss is supporting my teaching practice is that she’s calling around to other Harkness schools and asking if they’re planning on doing any renovations or upgrades and, if they are, do they have a table they’re willing to donate.

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We’re moving into a new space for next school year, and I’d love nothing more to have a giant table at which we can all sit and share ideas!

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Filed under colleagues, I love my boss, I love my job, Teaching